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The lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, so the date of Lunar New Year is different each year. However, it is usually in January or February. As well as being celebrated in China, Lunar New Year is also an important festival in many other places, including Vietnam, Singapore and Korea.
Each year is named after one of 12 animals. A traditional story explains how this came to be. One day, the Emperor decided to have a race for all the animals in the country. Unfortunately, only 12 animals actually managed to get to the race. The Emperor rewarded them by naming the 12 years of the lunar calendar after them. The first to finish was the rat, so the first year is named after him. The other eleven, in order, were the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
A family celebration
Different places celebrate in slightly different ways, but Lunar New Year is very much a family celebration wherever it takes place. The younger generation greet their parents and grandparents with good wishes for the year ahead and show their respect for the older generation. In Korea this is called sebae. The young people kneel on the ground and bow deeply.
Older members of the family give younger ones cash presents, traditionally in small packets. Red packets are used in China and Vietnam, as red is a lucky colour. Nowadays, many people send money electronically too. It is lucky to send money in certain amounts, for example using the number eight, which in Chinese sounds like the word ‘prosper’.
Traditional foods which are eaten at Lunar New Year often have another meaning. For example, in China, many people eat fish dishes because the Chinese word for ‘fish’ sounds similar to ‘surplus’, meaning you will have plenty.
In Korea, people serve a special soup. Thin pieces of rice cake are boiled in a clear soup with slices of beef and vegetables. The rice cake pieces are round and may represent coins and money. It is said that eating this soup at New Year makes you one year older. People joke that if you have two bowls of soup, you’ll be two years older!
A traditional Vietnamese food is square rice cake, wrapped in leaves. It’s stuffed with pork and vegetables and takes many hours to prepare, so many people buy the cake instead of making it.
There are many other Lunar New Year traditions. For example, in Vietnam, people believe that the first person to enter their home in the New Year will decide their fortune for the year ahead. They are careful to invite someone who is kind, well behaved and successful.
In Korea, families often play traditional board games together, such as yunnori. In this game, teams take it in turn to throw four specially shaped sticks into the air. They move around the board depending on how the sticks fall.
In China, many people have firecrackers, which burn and make a loud bang. They watch street performances, where acrobatic dancers dress up as a lion or a dragon. They dance, accompanied by music and drums.
People celebrate Lunar New Year in many different ways, but all the celebrations are about wishing everyone the very best for the year ahead. What do you wish for next year?